Base Instincts

Geoffrey Kabaservice's 'Rule and Ruin'

There is a certain astonishment in political journalism over the current state of the Republican Party. Sympathetic liberals like E. J. Dionne and idiosyncratic conservatives like Michael Gerson join apostate Republicans like David Frum in protesting the GOP’s secession from moderation, compromise, and any ideologically inconvenient facts.

The 2010 midterm elections only sharpened the GOP’s pursuit of conservative ideological purity, as Tea Party activists swept a number of Democrats and moderate Republicans out of office. Conservative intransigence and the resulting Beltway gridlock have sparked renewed interest in political moderation. Groups like Americans Elect and No Labels are organizing to end ideological trench warfare and get government working again.

In Rule and Ruin, Geoffrey Kabaservice presents a compelling case that current GOP radicalism is just the most recent, visible outgrowth of a decades-long project. Midcentury conservative stalwarts like Phyllis Schlafly and Barry Goldwater began a still-raging argument over conservative electoral strategy. They believed that the Republicans could only crack the New Deal coalition by whipping up the country’s conservative base. Moderates maintained that electoral strength came from courting independents. Though the base-mobilization strategy’s first trial run (in the 1964 elections) was an indubitable failure, the conservatives still won the longer intra-party argument. How did Goldwater emerge as the Republican presidential nominee just four years after Dwight Eisenhower left the Oval Office? What strange alchemy converted the party of fiscal responsibility into the party that spearheaded a tripling of the national debt under the Reagan administration?

Kabaservice ably narrates the Republican Party’s fifty-year conversion from a diverse political organization into an exclusively conservative “ideological vehicle.” Rather than simply telling the victors’ story, however, he focuses on the dwindling fortunes of the Republican moderates (and progressives) who were slowly, persistently drummed out of the GOP. Their story is not as well known.

In part, that is because it is a diffuse story. Just who were these moderates? Though Kabaservice spends a great deal of the book trying to trace out moderate Republicanism’s “distinctive political philosophy,” it ultimately defies strict definition. Some Republican moderates were deeply prolife, while others were prochoice. Some remained enthusiastic supporters of the Vietnam War, while others (eventually) worked to end it. Some supported Nixon’s nomination in 1968, while others favored more reliably moderate candidates. The moderates resist easy characterization; they were never a well-defined group.

Was there any issue on which the moderates clearly agreed? Kabaservice treats support for the civil-rights movement as the critical touchstone distinguishing conservatives from moderates. While conservatives saw federal civil-rights legislation as an opportunity to appeal to disaffected white voters and crack the Democrats’ “Solid South,” moderates argued that this calculation perjured the legacy of Abraham Lincoln—and his party. More practically, though, they also worried that race-baiting rhetoric would cost the party any remaining support from African-American voters. On this, if nothing else, the moderates were in admirable agreement.

On one hand, ideological flexibility is moderation’s strongest characteristic. Moderates are prudent. The heroes of Kabaservice’s story are contrarians compelled by inconvenient facts to take up unpopular causes. They are reflective, complex, and innovative policy thinkers. They are skeptical that humans (or markets) left to their own devices will spontaneously solve social problems on their own, though they also doubt that a government staffed by humans can be trusted to solve every problem. Political moderation is best thought of as a particular cast of mind, not a premade set of principles that can solve problems quickly and cleanly.

On the other hand, this idiosyncratic approach to politics is moderation’s most destructive flaw. Like many endangered species, moderate Republicans faced extinction as a result of shrinking habitat, competition over scarce resources, and inability to adapt to changing conditions. Each periodic migration to their ancestral hunting grounds—Republican Party conventions—thinned their ranks. Throughout the latter half of the century, moderates turned up at conventions with all the organizational discipline of a kindergarten soccer team. Meanwhile, conservative activists built extensive grassroots networks, refined their rhetoric, and outmaneuvered their muddled competitors. In the wake of each convention trouncing, moderate leaders bemoaned their side’s relative lack of passion and discipline. Despite repeatedly identifying their problem, they never addressed it—and the quadrennial organizational beatings continued.

This pattern of decline ought to worry today’s moderate activists. Can a moderate movement coalesce around open-mindedness? Will activists pound the pavement to drum up support for cautious, reflective political candidates? Will voters turn out in droves to back a platform that promises seriousness, but offers no simple solutions? Probably not.

Whatever else can be said in their favor, moderates struggle to articulate straightforward goals that could inspire a movement. This isn’t for lack of effort—it’s a problem inherent in their approach. When moderates try to organize around simple political messages, they sacrifice their vaunted open-minded judgment. That’s the fundamental reason various twentieth-century attempts to build a moderate Republican consensus were doomed to fail. Voting majorities organize and form around uncomplicated narratives.

The moderates didn’t completely die off, although most were forced to find more hospitable political habitats. Some left for the less doctrinaire Democratic Party, while others discovered their hidden conservative plumage. Indeed, many recent Republican Party luminaries started their careers as moderates. Some feature prominently in Rule and Ruin. Newt Gingrich is here—as a lonely Southern supporter of progressive Republican presidential hopeful Nelson Rockefeller. Donald Rumsfeld appears as a good-government reformer intent on cleaning up Congress. Dick Cheney shows up as a campus politics adviser to moderate Rep. William A. Steiger. George Romney—Mitt’s father—falls short in his bid for the 1968 GOP nomination. Though he stands out as a moderate who refused to appease the party’s conservatives, his loss conclusively ends “the moderates’ likelihood of leaving a lasting imprint on the Republican Party.”

Is Republican moderation beyond resuscitation? Even if moderates were able to clarify a platform, the GOP base doesn’t seem ready to listen. In order to secure the party’s presidential nomination, Mitt Romney was forced to bury, deny, or repudiate his past departures from conservative orthodoxy. Indeed, many conservatives still cast him as a (dangerously) moderate departure from party purity. Despite huge organizational and financial advantages, he can’t seem to generate any substantial enthusiasm from the Republican grassroots—or many GOP elites. Moderation is not yet in fashion within the Republican Party.

What’s to be done? Kabaservice is as moderate as his subject matter; he resists proposing an implausibly easy solution. He believes that third-party projects are likely “foredoomed to failure,” and redistricting reforms will be “a slow process” at best. He speculates that moderation’s resuscitation may have to wait for another unmistakable electoral repudiation of radical conservatism. If he’s right, a self-destructive conservative candidate like Gingrich might actually be the vessel for Republican moderation’s return. Distasteful as this might seem, moderates should turn Goldwater’s famous line on its head: the renunciation of extremism in pursuit of sanity is no vice.

Published in the 2012-06-01 issue: 
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Conor Williams is a doctoral candidate in Georgetown University’s Government Department and a freelance journalist. Read his work at conorpwilliams.com.

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